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Kickstarting: A Sharpie-Wielding Robot That Teaches Kids To Program

Want to teach kids to program? Give them a robot buddy.

His eyes are wide, like ET’s or Johnny Five’s. His skin mimics the indestructible plastic found in LEGO. Even his name sounds like a beloved pet. Sparki may be a complex Arduino robot, but he’s (he looks like a he) has been designed from the ground up for children.

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Sparki is the latest creation by ArcBotics, a Kickstarter-born company building open robotics platforms. “After our first successful Kickstarter for Hexy the Hexapod, we were approached by many who asked, do you have anything for beginners?” Joe Schlesinger explains. “When we looked around, we saw that other educational robots were very expensive, difficult to use, lacked features, or had closed designs.”

In response, ArcBotics spent a year creating Sparki. It has all the gizmos you’d want in a robot–distance sensors (those are actually the eyes), light level sensors, line following sensors, IR receivers, an accelerometer, and wheels that turn on a dime–but its brilliance will be in its accessibility.

For one, you can program Sparki through simple drag-and-drop code blocks. Even for those who’ve never programmed before, the interface can get kids interacting with Sparki “in minutes.” (The getting-kids-programming trend is an interesting one for sure. Check out GoldieBlox and Mindstorms EV3 if you haven’t.)

But I think the even neater idea is actually the simplest ’80s toy hook: A marker holder that fits inside Sparki’s core that allows the robot to draw. It’s basically just a tube that’s large enough to hold a marker, but in the hands of a programmable robot, it becomes a very tangible thing a child can teach Sparki to do. A seven-year-old might have Sparki draw a flower. A ten-year-old might have Sparki write a curse word. And from age 12–for boys at least–it’s all tanks and boobies until age 27. (I don’t have the experience to speculate what girls are drawing from then on. So I assume it’s all just art.)

“We don’t want a kid to ever have to look at a Sparki and think they’ve run out of things to do with it,” Schlesinger says. “We have no idea [what people will do], and I think that’s what excites us the most. We’re providing lots of coding- and robotics-focused tutorials to get people started, but it’s really up to the users to figure out what you can end up doing with it.”

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Indeed, that’s the ultimate promise of personal robotics–having a best friend who entirely lacks the will to say no to any stupid thing you want to do. You can preorder a Sparki for $100 on Kickstarter now.

Order Sparki here.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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